Review Summary: On Viva Emptiness, Katatonia attempt to combine their soft, vulnerable alt-rock side with aggressive, in-your-face heavy metal, resulting unfortunately, in a record of cringe worthy angst.
Katatonia has undergone a steady, linear progression throughout their career. They started out as a death/doom band but evolved over time into a softer and more melodic style that has been described as “alternative doom” or “dark rock” (their preferred label). In my opinion, the pinnacle of Katatonia’s ever changing sound was achieved on their latest LP Night is the New Day, a record that was light on aggression and heavy on melancholy, and definitely better for it. Katatonia also made it one of their darkest albums yet by favoring atmosphere over gothic catchiness, and expressing their trademark sorrow in a mature and thoughtful way. Now, along their path of progression from the bleak and effectively simple sound of Brave Murder Day, to the lush, melodic soundscapes of Night is the New Day, lies a disappointing album called Viva Emptiness. On this record, Katatonia attempted to combine their softer, vulnerable alt-rock side with aggressive, in-your-face heavy metal, resulting, unfortunately, in a record of cringe worthy angst. For whatever reason, Viva Emptiness is still a respected and popular album, but it is an undeniable failure to me, especially when held up to the standards of their earliest and latest releases.
The first track Ghost of the Sun
actually opens up quite promisingly, pummeling the listener with heavy bass, drums, and weird guitar riffs, before simmering down to a melodic and restrained section to make room for the soft vocals of Jonas Renske. The lyrics and their delivery match perfectly with the music, and as the song picks up again to the heavy bass rhythm shown at the start of the song, set over the interesting line “City of glass, and I live in the coldness of my brother’s skin!” it begins to feel like this is going to be a very good record indeed! Unfortunately things go downhill moments later, as Katatonia ditch lyrical subtlety for melodrama with the next line; “I trusted you, you lied, it’s all I hear, a ***ing lie! Don’t give a ***, it’s over now, it’s all I know, you broke the vow…I TRUSTED YOUUUU!” C’mon guys, you can do better than that.
Ghost of the Sun
is still a very good track, but the style that they take in it foreshadows of what the rest of the record has in store (namely, disappointment). The next track, Sleeper
, is decent, but it doesn’t stand out as anything special, and Jonas Renske disappoints once again with his lyrics and delivery. In fact, my biggest issue with this album is with Jonas; he seems to think that if you sing anything with his signature wounded croon, than it will fit well with the music. Oftentimes, it really doesn’t. I was surprised by this, because one of Katatonia’s biggest strengths on their later albums, The Great Cold Distance, and Night is the New Day was how well Jonas’s voice accompanied the music, never taking over the show, yet still ever-present as a voice of sorrow and a powerful emotional instrument. His lyrics were also appropriately esoteric on those records; instead of shoving emotion down our throats in an obvious and immature way, as is often the case on this album, he gave the listener a little more to work for. Subtlety is key.
The third track, Criminals
, is actually downright terrible, showing some of their weakest songwriting to date, lyrically and instrumentally. Fortunately, Criminals
is the only truly awful track on the album, the rest of the tracks range from average to pretty good. Wealth
is one of the good tracks; it's interesting, well-crafted, and it features some great riffs that sound almost like a darker take on the poppy Jet song Are You Gonna Be My Girl"
.This probably wasn't intentional, but I often come back to it anyways to laugh at how Katatonia can make just about anything sound bleak and depressing. A Premonition
is another good track, and my personal favorite on the album. It's a mysterious and pretty song that hints at the style that they would adopt on their next two records, and although that style isn’t quite there yet, it’s still a pretty good track. Here lies my other main issue with Viva Emptiness, that Katatonia’s songwriting simply isn’t at its prime here. Most of the songs on Viva Emptiness are passable, but none of them are as stand-out brilliant as say, Brave
, or In the White
, from better albums of theirs. If this were a track-by-track review, the highest that I could rate any song would be a 4/5, which makes for a pretty underwhelming experience over-all.
Viva Emptiness simply doesn't show Katatonia at their thoughtful and mature best. The aggressive, metal elements on this album come across as angsty and contrived, Jonas hadn't quite figured out how to work with his band, and the songwriting leaves much to be desired. I must admit that is still an enjoyable listen at times, but overall, Viva Emptiness is the sound of a band in an awkward progressive transition.
I would advise people new to Katatonia to look into their latest and earliest albums first, because those are their best in my opinion.
-Ghost of the Sun